Ice Baths For Runners: Are They Worth The Pain?

Like most runners, I’m a ‘work in progress’ as our American cousins like to say. With every season that passes, my legs may have a little less race pace in them; but on the upside, I do try to keep on learning new lessons that help to offset the ravages of time.

So, as I’m now running close to 35 miles a week in preparation for the Edinburgh Marathon, I guess it’s OK to admit that training has become quite a struggle lately. I have no trouble running a slow 12-18 miles on a Sunday. But then going out to run six miles at race pace two days later has been killing me, with cramps and heavy legs making it impossible to get into my stride.

Time then, to start acting like a serious athlete, and take the plunge into an ice bath after every long run?

Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow!

OK, there’s no getting away from this: but if you run 18 miles before sitting down in a cold bath with many ice cubes in the water, it hurts like hell for the first few minutes. You might as well ask someone to park their truck on your legs, for all the immediate comfort an ice bath gives you.

Even for someone who has no problem plunging through the icy Bogs of Doom at Hellrunner every November, they’re a really unpleasant experience.

And don’t even get me started on the adverse effects to one’s lower-body protuberances. Which is why guys should always wear shorts for ice baths, if only for the sake of their fragile egos.

In fact, without wishing to get too graphic about this, let’s just say that half an hour ago I was considering changing the title of this blog to Taking Jelly Beans From Eskimos and leave it there, shall we?

Do Ice Baths Work?

Well, every runner knows that ice is their best friend when it comes to taking the pain and swelling out of a sore knee, ankle or lower back. But, generally speaking, you can only apply ice to an injury on a very localised basis.

The chilling beauty of a 10 minute ice bath is that it gets those heat- and swelling-reducing benefits to every single joint and muscle at once, then encourages the body to flow more blood back in: minimising tissue damage and encouraging quick repairs to all those micro-tears that a long run will inevitably bring.

That’s the theory anyway. But does it work? Well, I’m now into my third week of ice baths, and already feel that I’m in better shape two days after my long runs than I would have been otherwise, with far less heaviness than before I took the plunge. Even so, there’s only so much they can do to enhance the performance of an old plodder like my good self.

The real question is: what do the pros do? And the answer is that every serious distance runner (and indeed, every serious athlete) now uses a 10-20 minute ice bath after every training session.

So I have to say, it sounds like a no-brainer for us lesser mortals. And having pontificated long enough today, I’m off to trawl the Internet for a pair of neoprene Y-fronts.

Now, I wonder what sort of websites I might find them on…


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